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Published October 24, 2011, 10:33 PM

Winter wheat rebound

Jeff Oberholtzer planted a little winter wheat in 2009 and none in 2010. This fall, the Mohall, N.D., farmer planted a lot.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Jeff Oberholtzer planted a little winter wheat in 2009 and none in 2010. This fall, the Mohall, N.D., farmer planted a lot.

Oberholtzer and his father, Jerry, who also farms, were able to plant only 7 percent of their farmland this spring because of wet fields.

“It’s not something I’d wish on anyone,” Jeff Oberholtzer says.

With so much of their land unplanted this spring, the Oberholtzers turned to winter wheat this fall in a big way.

“With all our PP (prevented planting) acres, winter wheat seemed to make sense,” Jeff Oberholtzer says.

What happened on the Oberholtzers’ farms may have occurred, on a smaller scale, across the state.

Reports from elsewhere in North Dakota also indicate a significant increase in winter wheat acres, often in fields too wet to plant this spring. About a quarter of North Dakota’s farmland went unplanted in the spring.

Last year, about 400,000 acres were planted to winter wheat in the state. This year, 600,000 acres may have gone to winter wheat, with the area from Bottineau County west north of North Dakota Highway 200 picking up most of the additional acres, says Blake Vander Vorst, senior agronomist with Ducks Limited.

His organization promotes winter wheat, including funding research into it. Fall seeding causes fewer disturbances for wildlife and improves nesting success.

Vander Vorst stresses that his number is just an estimate. The U.S. Department of Agriculture won’t release the official acreage figure until next year.

But judging by North Dakota’s Renville County, where Oberholtzer farms, the state’s winter wheat acreage almost certainly has risen substantially from a year ago.

There’s so much winter wheat in the county, which normally grows relatively little of the crop, that “it’s almost like spring,” says LoAyne Voight, extension agent in the northwestern North Dakota county

Only about 5 percent of farmland in her county was planted this spring because of wet conditions. Many of the unplanted fields were seeded to winter wheat in September, and winter wheat plants now emerging from the soil remind Voight of spring wheat emerging in a normal year.

Winter wheat generally is planted in the first half of September in northern North Dakota and in the second half of September in the southern part of the state.

Questions about acres

North Dakota probably didn’t see as big an increase in the number of winter wheat acres this fall as all the unplanted acres this spring might suggest, say people knowledgeable about winter wheat in the region.

Some farmers who talked about planting winter wheat didn’t get the ground in shape in time to plant the crop, says Hugh Hunt of Hallock, Minn., who sells winter wheat seed and grows it, too. His sales territory includes western North Dakota, where much of the potential increase in the state’s winter wheat acres was thought to have come.

Vander Vorst says some parts of the state didn’t see an increase in winter wheat acres and even may have seen a decrease.

Winter wheat is grown across most of North Dakota, although the crop is most common in the northern and south-central parts of the state.

Logan County, in south-central North Dakota, probably won’t see much change in winter wheat acreage from a year ago, says Sheldon Gerhardt, county extension agent.

Many farmers in the county have been planting more row crops in recent years, which works against winter wheat acres, he says.

Also, problems in past years with the virus called wheat streak mosaic may have discouraged some Logan County farmers from planting winter wheat, Gerhardt says.

Concerns about wheat streak mosaic and winter wheat prices also appear to have factored in planting decisions statewide.

Wheat streak mosaic, a longstanding concern, can cause losses ranging from minimal to complete crop failure, according to information from the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

Currently, winter wheat fetches about $2 per bushel less than spring wheat at area grain elevators surveyed weekly by Agweek; a year ago, winter wheat averaged about a dollar less per bushel at those elevators.

Winter wheat typically yields more than spring wheat, but the yield advantage becomes less meaningful when winter wheat’s price is much lower.

Receiving more attention

Whatever the number of acres planted to winter wheat this fall in North Dakota, the crop has generated more buzz than usual in a state better known for both spring wheat and durum wheat.

North Dakota farmers in recent years have planted 10 to 30 times more spring wheat than winter wheat and roughly two to seven times more durum than winter wheat.

One favorable sign for the crop’s long-term future in the state: NDSU, which didn’t have a winter wheat breeder for many years, hired Francois Marais a year ago to fill the position.

It typically takes a new variety about 10 years to go from initial cross to commercial use, NDSU officials said at the time.

Marais tells Agweek now that he’s been on the job a relatively short time and that it’s premature to say much about his work. But he says he’s focusing on disease resistance, hardiness and yields, among other things.

While winter wheat never will rival spring wheat’s importance in North Dakota, winter wheat definitely can play a bigger role in the state, Marais says.

Advantages of the crop

Winter wheat begins growing after it’s planted in the fall, becomes established and then goes into dormancy when cold weather arrives. It resumes growing in the spring with the return of warmer weather and is harvested in the summer, before other crops

Advocates for winter wheat in the region say the crop offers a number of advantages. The pluses:

n Spreading out the workload. Planting is moved from spring to the preceding fall, while harvest is moved forward by several weeks.

n The crop typically yields better than spring wheat, in part because winter wheat misses most of the midsummer heat that can stress wheat plants and hurt yields.

n Yields of spring wheat and winter wheat can be combined for insurance purposes. Higher-yielding winter wheat brings up the actual production history, or APH, for farmers who grow both crops.

“Spreading the workload” can be a bit misleading, says John Weinand, a Hazen, N.D., farmer who has raised winter wheat for years.

“I’m busy all the time,” he says.

Still, there’s value in pushing forward some of the harvest by planting winter wheat, he says.

Winter wheat also typically enjoys more favorable growing conditions than spring wheat, Weinand says.

Winter wheat is “a totally different crop” than spring wheat, says Hunt, the Hallock wheat farmer and seed dealer.

Winter wheat’s root system develops better and leads to a much more vigorous plant, he says.

Winter wheat has “more time to tiller” and benefits from conditions that allow it to “tiller more profusely, Hunt says.

Tillers, or shoots, can develop into grain-bearing heads that increase yields.

Weinand says he’s had as many as seven heads on winter wheat plants and enjoyed yields of 100 bushels per acre with the crop.

Attractive profits

Weinand and others say winter wheat can be more profitable than spring wheat, even with winter wheat fetching less per bushel.

For example, the NDSU 2011 crop budgets, prepared late last year, projected this year’s per-acre return to labor and management for winter wheat in north-central North Dakota at $51.57.

The per-acre return to labor and management for spring wheat in north-central North Dakota was projected at $40.33.

Winter wheat profitably traditionally ranks well in the annual NDSU crop budgets, Weinand says.

“I don’t know why more people don’t grow it,” he says.

Hunt says area farmers generally are accustomed to planting in the spring and that “it takes a different mindset” to grow winter wheat, he says.

Elsewhere in the region

Minnesota isn’t likely to see much, if any, increase in winter wheat acreage because of competition from other crops, says Dave Torgerson, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers.

Minnesota grows relatively little winter wheat. Farmers in the state have planted 27,000 to 75,000 acres of winter wheat annually in recent years.

South Dakota most likely has seen a drop in winter wheat acres, says Randy Englund, executive director of the South Dakota Wheat Commission.

Attractive corn prices encourage farmers in the state to grow more of that crop and less wheat, he says.

South Dakota is among the bigger players in winter wheat production. Farmers in the state planted 1.35 million to 2.1 million acres of winter wheat annually in recent years.

Montana also is a leader in winter wheat production. Farmers in the state planted from 1.9 million to 2.6 millions to the crop annually in recent years.

Dry conditions complicated planting in the state this year, says Kim Falcon, executive director of the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee.

But she doesn’t think winter wheat acreage in the state will vary much from a year ago, when 2.25 million acres were planted, she says.

Winter wheat is a staple in the rotation of many Montana producers, who grow the crop year after year, she says.

Hard red winter wheat, used primarily for bread flour, is grown on the Great Plains, from Texas north through Montana, according to USDA.

Kansas is the nation’s leading producer, accounting for about a quarter of U.S. hard red winter wheat.

Tips for growing it

Though conditions generally were favorable, this wasn’t a perfect year for planting winter wheat in North Dakota. Some fields were a little dry and lumpy when the crop was planted, says Jeremy Peterson, NDSU Extension Service agronomist in Minot, N.D.

Twenty-two percent of North Dakota was short or very short of topsoil moisture in mid September, compared with only 6 percent a year ago, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Even so, planting conditions on balance were much better this fall than they were a year and two years ago, when many fields were too wet, Peterson and others say.

Winter wheat usually doesn’t require much attention between planting and freeze-up, though farmers should scout their winter wheat fields to decide whether they should apply grass herbicide, Peterson says.

He and others stress the need “to break the green bridge” — destroying all green vegetation, which provides a host for the wheat curl mite that spreads the virus causing wheat streak mosaic.

Winter wheat is at risk from winterkill. Some snow cover, though not a lot of it, typically is needed to protect the crop from winter temperatures, Hunt says.

Planting winter wheat into canola stubble helps to catch snow and improve winter wheat’s odds, he says.

In this area, winter wheat and canola sometimes are referred to as a “match made in heaven.”

Weinand’s biggest advice to farmers growing winter wheat: “Don’t skimp on inputs.”

Oberholtzer, the Mohall farmer who planted so much winter wheat this year, thinks the crop has a long-term role on his farm, which also produces barley, spring wheat, soybeans, sunflowers and corn.

He planted a few acres to winter wheat in 2009 to learn more about the crop and get a better sense of how it might fit into his operation. He hoped to plant even more winter wheat in 2010, but the wet fall prevented that.

So he’s still evaluating how much of a role winter wheat ultimately will play in his operation.

“I think this year’s crop will help to answer that,” he says.